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Mid-Continent Public Library Board blasted as banned books comments suggest censorship

Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A Facebook post on Tuesday drew criticism from library trustees Yummy Pandolfi, Michael Lazio and Michelle Wycoff. A group of current and former employees now wants to see them resign.

After three board trustees posted disapproving comments on Facebook about a library display during Banned Books Week, some current and former employees want to see them dropped from leadership.

A display for Banned Books Week has caused a social media controversy for Mid-Continent Public Library.

In bright red lettering surrounded by paper flames and yellow caution tape, the display reads, “Caution: These books are dangerous!” Like many others in libraries across the country this week, the display at the North Independence Branch location is meant to highlight the value of free and open access to information — a key aim for Banned Books Week.

But three members of the library’s board of trustees took issue on Facebook with the display.

“Appalling,” Yummy Pandolfi and board Vice President Michael Lazio posted online. Pandolfi continued, “I’m saddened by this lack of judgment from library employees.”

“You are crossing a line that’s not yours to cross,” wrote trustee Michelle Wycoff, in a now-deleted Facebook comment. “Influencing someone else’s children like this is unacceptable quite frankly.”

Pandolfi, Lazio, Wycoff and MCPL board President Ronald Thiewes all declined to comment for this story.

Austin Gragg, a former MCPL employee, said the comments are just the latest in a string of anti-intellectual and anti-LGBTQ views that he said has no place on the library’s board. Those views, he said, have caused some queer former employees to leave their jobs at the library.

“It really does seem that these board members are more interested in not only furthering political goals, but treating the library board as a political country club,” said Gragg, who is helping organize a group of current and former library employees who want to see the trustees off the board.

“Having been a former employee, I know what it's like to feel like you can't say something when board members are acting in this way,” said Gragg, who was quick to add that most employees he knows love their job at the library, and fear losing it.

“I know that the general sense and feeling is that the board has the power to basically call any staff member before them (and fire them) if they would like,” Gragg said.

Because the trustees are appointed, Gragg and his group plan to write letters and a petition to Clay and Platte County commissioners.

A history of anti-LGBTQ views

In 2019, the board of trustees was involved in controversy over a series of events designed to provide a public venue where a transgender person could share information on their life experience. The program, Trans 101, began after two teen suicides in the MCPL district, according to a statement from Wycoff, who was president of the board at the time.

The hubbub made local headlines when trustee Rita Wiese wrote a letter to the Platte County Landmark newspaper arguing that transgender programming was inappropriate.

“A once safe community setting known as the public library has become a space that, in the guise of intellectual freedom, wants to change thinking on voyeurism and gender confusion, while promoting materials and programs that lead children toward being sexually exploited,” Wiese wrote.

The Kansas City Star reported at the time that witnesses claimed the subject prompted trustee Yummy Pandolfi to equate the education of transgender issues with lessons on how to be a criminal. Pandolfi said her words were taken out of context.

Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The trustees' comments on Facebook prompted dozens of replies, many calling for them to be replaced.

In response to the more recent Banned Books Week display, library CEO Steve Potter drew a line between trustees’ personal views and the official values of the library.

“Intellectual Freedom is one of MCPL’s core principles,” he wrote in a statement to KCUR. “As such, the Library provides a wide range of materials and resources that cover many different topics, and book displays in branches are one way that staff highlight this diverse collection. The Library respects the freedom of its customers to choose which of those resources and services are right for themselves and their families.”

For Gragg, it’s not that the latest comments were explicitly discriminatory — it’s more that they seemed to violate the spirit of Banned Books Week and the Library Bill of Rights, which says that “libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

“Based on the comments that have been made by the board members … they aren't really interested in views that they personally are offended by,” said Gragg. “They aren’t comfortable with those being in the library.”

The rift could be seen as ironic, given the theme of this year’s Banned Books Week, “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” The event was launched in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores, and libraries, according to their website.

“It seems to break down to kind of a misunderstanding about what the library is about, which is providing access to information for everybody, void of political bias,” said Gragg. “Everyone should be able to come into the library and feel welcome, as well as find materials that are relevant to them.”

Disclosure: Mid-Continent Public Library is a financial supporter of KCUR.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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